For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:5-7)
The life of a disciple should be one of virtue and integrity. It’s also a lifelong process. There will never be a point in our lives when we have “arrived” as the perfect disciple. Just like health and fitness is a lifestyle, so is following Christ. We will never be perfect, but as we follow Christ we are in the process of being perfected, being made complete.
And we will never be complete without love.
Love (agape in the Greek) appears in every list of Christian virtues and Spiritual gifts. You could say that love is THE virtue and THE main gift of the Spirit.
It is unfortunate that the English language only has the one word for love. It becomes so overused that it loses significant meaning. Greek (and Aramaic and Hebrew) has multiple words denoting different types of love. Last time we looked at the word philadelphia, or brotherly/familial love. Peter ends this list of virtues with agape.
So what’s the difference? Check out this video that does a great job explaining it:
Agape love is a love which gives without expectation of receiving anything in return. Another way to define it is “unconditional love.” It’s a love that cannot be earned but is freely given. It’s a love that is more concerned with the well-being of the other. It’s a love that has no prerequisites, no stipulations, no conditions, no strings attached.
ONE LOVE, OR TWO?
As mentioned in the video, Jesus tells us that the greatest commands in Scripture are 1) Love (agape) the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and 2) Love (agape) your neighbor as yourself. The question is – are these two different loves or one same love?
If love of God and love of neighbor are two separate loves, then love for God must inherently trump love for neighbor. Love of God involves obedience to God’s commands. So if there are situations in which showing love to a neighbor would border on violating God’s commands, then we must defer to love of God over and against love of neighbor. This is one of the points Jesus is trying to make when he tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite pass by the beaten man because stopping to help might make them “unclean.” The chose not to help a man in need in order to keep themselves from violating God’s commands about cleanliness.
If love of God and love of neighbor are two separate loves, then we can use “obedience to God” as a way of justifying everything from war to slavery to racism to genocide. Don’t believe me? Read a history book. We can use our religious piety and devotion as an excuse for our own prejudice and even violence towards our fellow man. See: Jonah
But if love of God and love of neighbor are one and the same love, then we show that we love God by the way we love our neighbors. The Samaritan showed that he loved God by having mercy on the beaten man along the road. The earliest Christians showed their love for God by sharing all things in common, providing for each others’ needs, and inviting all different types of people into the church.
“Two loves” would allow us to discriminate against the homeless, or immigrants, or drug addicts, or alcoholics, or LGBTQ+, or people of color, or those of a different political party – all under the guise of devotion to God. “One love” does not give us that option.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:10-12)
If it’s two loves we would expect that sentence to go, “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love God.” But that’s not how it works. “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” God is most fully known when we love one another.
It’s all one love.
LEARNING HOW TO LOVE
As we think about what it means to love, we can’t help but take a good look at 1 Corinthians 13, “The Love Chapter.” Let’s really take a look at what Paul is telling us here.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Think about Paul’s early life. He was known as Saul back then. He was an up and coming star of Judaism. He was training to be a Rabbi while studying at the best schools under the best teachers. Saul was a Hebrew-speaking Jew (a rarity in his day), a Pharisee, a passionate lawyer in training. He was a “Two-Love” kind of guy. He allowed his religious zeal and love for God to justify committing atrocities against the followers of Christ (literally “wreaked havoc” on them). Saul was as religious as they come. But he knew nothing about love until the resurrected Christ knocked him on his back and blinded him for three days.
Now the missionary formerly known as Saul is writing to Christians in Corinth. He’s trying to help them understand a lesson he wished he had learned earlier in life – religious observance and zeal mean nothing apart from loving your neighbor.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
When we love others, we are reflecting the nature of God back to the rest of creation. Humans were created to bear God’s image and likeness. The way Paul describes love is also a beautiful description of God – God is patient. God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. God does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no records of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The real challenge is putting our name in the place of love. I know for Paul, none of these things could be said about his earlier life as Saul. Saul was not patient or kind. Saul definitely kept records of wrongs. Saul was easily angered and was totally self-seeking. But when he encountered Christ all that changed.
Can you do it? Can you put your name in the blank? I am patient, I am kind. I do not envy, I do not boast, I am not proud. I do not dishonor others, I am not self-seeking, I am not easily angered, I keep no records of wrongs. I do not delight in evil, but rejoice with the truth. I always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere.
How challenging is that?
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:8-12)
The beautiful thing about love is that it sees the world not as it is but as it could be. Love requires imagination. Love sees that history is on the move. This whole thing is going somewhere. There is a progression. And I believe that even with as evil as the world can seem at times, we are globally more compassionate than we’ve ever been as a species. We’re more concerned with justice and equality. We’re more concerned with ending violence and promoting peace, education, health, and welfare than ever before.
Are things perfect? Absolutely not! Will they ever be perfect? Not in this world. But there is hope of progress. We can move from children to adults, from seeing dimly to seeing more clearly, from knowing in part to knowing fully. That’s called the kingdom of heaven – or “completeness” as Paul puts it.
Love never gives up on making this world a bit more like heaven.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
The three greatest virtues are faith, hope, and love. But what makes love the greatest? Follow Paul’s reasoning and progression. He’s moving our attention from the temporary things of this world to the eternal nature of the kingdom of God. That’s the ultimate goal. Faith serves us in this life by keeping us connected to God. Hope serves us in this life to reassure us that “the kingdom of heaven is near.” When heaven arrives, when “completeness comes,” then our hopes will become reality and our faith will become sight. But love continues forever. Love serves us in this life and in the life to come. Love spans the “already-but-not-yet” of the kingdom of heaven.
LOVE IN ACTION
So what does it look like to be a people of love? What does it mean to have love be the defining characteristic of our lives? I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll leave you will a couple of passages to seriously consider.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)